Empathy Vs Sympathy: Which one to use?
In a book that I just finished called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘ by Stephen R Covey, I came across a chapter on Habit 5- Seek to understand, then to be understood. A chapter on Empathy.
You know how when you’re reading a book, some sentences or words just suddenly stand brighter than the remaining in your mental view of the book? Well, this was not it.
Until I was halfway done with the chapter.
I remember on my first day in medical school, I was taught the meaning of empathy, my first time hearing the word. My professor who was introducing a new world to me in 2017 said something along the lines of:
“You need to have empathy as a doctor.”
I nodded my head mentally, noting it somewhere down in my brain matter in big bold red letters ‘BE EMPATHIC.‘
I assumed it was just another synonym for sympathy. I had to sympathise with people trusting me with their pains and woes.
I was wrong.
He was just beginning to explain why I shouldn’t be sympathetic. Now for a person who had just noted ‘Be Empathic’ in her mind thinking it meant the same thing, I was a little confused. A lot confused, actually. But nevertheless, I continued listening to this man who was making no sense because I’m a listener and I pay attention. PSYCHE!
I listened only because it was the first day and I expected questions at the end of the class. I’m that kid, yep.
He began explaining and I was all ears. My memory doesn’t serve me right because I’m already ageing here and not backwards too, so I can’t quote him but I’ll tell you what I took back from my first day in med school in my own words.
Empathy: You understand. You put yourself in his/her shoes and understand.
Sympathy: You pity.
You can’t ALWAYS sympathise. There are times you should but you can’t always. If your patient is crying, you can’t tell him to scoot over and sit with him and cry.
What you can do instead is (and this applies to all areas of life)- Be empathic.
Let’s look at something else before I go any further. Did you know there are 4 forms of listening? Neither did I, Susan but I’m going to tell you now.
They are – ignoring, pretending, selective, attentive.
1. Ignoring- Physically present, mentally absent- quoting all teachers here.
2. Pretending- your hmm’s and aah’s are not habits that follow good listening.
3. Selective- This is my favourite and I’m guilty of it. You pick up ‘keywords’, string together words that make sense to the ones you’ve heard and shoot a response to seem like you listened to everything.
4. Attentive- You listen. In the true meaning of the word. You have nothing to offer and nothing to say. You listen but you don’t fully understand.
There’s also a fifth that many forget- Empathy.
Empathy means you put yourself in the person’s shoes and see it the way he does. Even if you don’t agree with how he perceives things, just knowing that you understand the person is a huge thing.
This brings me to the mistake I’ve been committing all my life:
Don’t Be Autobiographical. – Stephen R Covey.
Say I was talking to a girl of 15. If she told me ‘I struggle with body image issues’, you know what my first instinct would be?
I’d first rewind MY life and start the tape when I was 12 and tell her all the things I did to lose weight. I’d tell her MY story and how I went about it and why most of the things I did was not worth it. I’d tell her about ME.
See what the problem is?
I’m being autobiographical. She tells me her problems and I tell her why she shouldn’t be having those problems because I’ve gone through them and I think it’s stupid now that I’m older. I’m telling her that those shouldn’t be her problems. What use is that?
I was attentive, yes but for what?
I’m coming from a good place, I swear. I want the best for this 15 year old. Just that I refuse to listen to what she has to say and jump up at the opportunity to tell her how she should avoid it according to my experiences.
That is far from showing empathy.
If I don’t understand why she’s doing what she’s doing, (Just the words ‘body image issues’ isn’t enough to work with a person) and don’t listen to why these thoughts are being put into her head in the first place, I can’t tell her anything. I shouldn’t be telling her anything because…
That brings us to the next point.
Don’t prescribe before diagnosing. -Stephen R Covey
In the book the author added an example of a man visiting an optometrist with a complaint of diminishing vision. The optometrist pulls out the glasses he had on and gives it to the man.
He says, “Here. This has helped me for so long. It should help you too.” When the man says it isn’t helping, the annoyed optometrist says, “Well, it’s helped me all these years how can it not help you?”
Anyone with half a brain can see why this is wrong..
You cannot prescribe before diagnosing. You cannot be advising before you listen. You cannot listen to the person if you don’t make the effort to actually put yourself in his place.
You don’t have to agree with him/her. All you need to do is see what he is seeing from his stand point and RESPECT IT.
Saying “Ohhh now I see what you’re seeing- YOU’RE WRONG ANYWAY” is not empathy. You need to respect what he’s seeing, not just see it the way he does. You need to respect the fact that two people perceive the same thing differently, without either one having to be right or wrong.
This is not a technique. Don’t treat ‘Be Empathic’ as a technique to be a better listener. The problem with seeing this as a technique is that it makes it mechanical. Meaning, it’s forced.
I’ve struggled with social speaking- on stage and off. It’s not because I have nothing to say or because I can’t form sentences or because I don’t know the words- it’s because it’s just something I’ve never been confident about. I don’t talk in person to a lot of people and I’m socially awkward. I can text you like you’re my best friend and pretend like you don’t exist when I see you in person because I feel like I lack conversational skills.
Sometimes I just don’t like you and don’t speak to you. That’s not included here.
So, this has driven me to take up conversational classes and lessons from the internet. It might sound funny to people who know me but, it’s the truth. I’ve read and watched videos on how to converse because I always thought I was terrible at it.
From those lessons, I’ve picked up ‘techniques’.
I’d watch some of my friends speak and mimic it in my bathroom to appear just as well spoken as him/her. Most times, because of my hidden talent of acting (Jokes), I would hit the right impression.
It is not me, but I trick myself into thinking that’s how I speak because I liked the way it looked when someone else was doing it. I’d recite interviews of many people and embody the person through his conversational skills.
As I started ‘practising’ speaking, I was failing in listening. I was doing everything I could to speak right, but while I was being spoken to, lessons and classes were running through my mind. I was picking and choosing the right ways to speak.
Where was I listening to them then? I wasn’t.
I was selectively catching words, making up my own meaning thinking I’m entitled to that and just saying things that was only half of what I actually would’ve said if I was listening.
The first thing you learn when you search conversation skills is to ‘listen’. But since I wanted a quick way to learn how to speak, I’d skip the whole part on listening.
When I picked up ‘The 7 Habits of Highly effective people’ I was open to everything.I didn’t go in thinking that I need to learn something specific. This helped me pick up things I was ignoring before. It made me realise that before speaking you’ve got to listen.
In the course of reading that chapter, I learned, I was faking most of my conversations because I wasn’t even listening to the person.
This is a form of sympathy. When you’re listening to say something back to them, you fall into sympathising. Not always but most times.
You cry, I cry. You talk, I also talk.
The author highlights and says that sometimes, sympathy can be a form of judgement. I see the point but I also don’t see how it could be. This is just food for thought.
Don’t take this as a lecture on how to listen from a person who knows nothing about it (Me). Don’t take this verbatim and look up techniques to listen because that’s just what those are- techniques.
Making a conscious effort to understand someone is a virtue. Not everyone needs a reply. Sometimes all someone needs is a person who gets it.
I’ve always wanted to reply to ‘show’ that I was listening. This stopped me from understanding him/her because I was busy formulating how I was seeing it. Which was far from the point of the conversation.
Whilst I’m trying to fix that, I figured this is enough reason to spread awareness on it to anyone that is like me. I’m like that parents that pushes lessons of mine on to everyone I deem fit for the lesson. If you’re anything like me and identify with it, you know where to start.
Again, this is not me lecturing you because I think I’m perfect. I know I’m flawed and particularly in the department of ‘listening’. I want to change that and this is an effort. Just spreading book knowledge here from a best selling author, that’s all. Cheers.
As always, thanks for reading 🙂
If you want to check more on it: Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.
For similar lessons I’ve learnt from books check out: Not a Book Review: Unlimited Power (Tony Robbins)
For related book reviews check out: A Rich Dad Poor Dad Review.
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